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Membership Retention: Is Your Bucket Leaking?

It’s easier to retain an existing member than to gain a new one.

By Maureen Zappala, DTM


In the commerce world, the “leaky bucket” is a metaphor depicting a business as a bucket and the customers as water in the bucket. A leaky bucket is a business that is losing customers. For the business to survive, it must either stop the leak (keep existing customers) or add more water (new customers) at a rate that is equal to or greater than the rate of the leak.

The metaphor applies to Toastmasters clubs as well. Member attrition due to changes in life circumstances is normal. Flourishing clubs focus on both recruiting new members and retaining the existing ones. Membership drives and open house meetings can help add water to the bucket. But no matter how many members you recruit, they won’t stay if your club doesn’t deliver on their expectations. So what is your club doing to plug the leak?

Illustrations by Bart Browne

Can your club completely stop a leak? No. But it can be slowed down to a trickle. In fact, it’s easier to retain an existing member than it is to gain a new one. Think of your members as having individual “satisfaction accounts” that control their involvement with your club. If you make sufficient “deposits” that increase their level of satisfaction, they won’t have a problem making a “withdrawal” from their real bank account when it comes time to renew dues.

What are those deposits? They are seven simple strategies that can help keep members engaged, satisfied and excited about their Toastmasters journey.


Define Their Needs

Every member’s needs are different and they change over time. Many joined Toastmasters to become better speakers but found terrific leadership training. Some joined expecting fast improvement but experienced slower progress than they anticipated. Cindy Laatsch, DTM, of Rumble Don’t Mumble Toastmasters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, says, “Toastmasters is so multifaceted. It’s the club’s job to find out what members need and help them see that the Toastmasters experience offers that. Speaking, networking, learning, horizon-broadening, safe place to fail? Yes—Toastmasters has that!”

Matt Goldberg, DTM, of Voorhees Toastmasters club in Voorhees, New Jersey, says, “In my nearly 10 years of membership, I’ve thought about ‘retiring’ a few times. My meeting attendance sometimes felt obligatory or futile, even as an officer for nine years. It’s important to keep one’s goals fluid, and mine have changed over time. Now I do more professional speaking and training than I did when I joined. I value my own growth, but I also value mentoring others to help them find their own voices.”

Along with defining members’ needs, it’s important to define what they don’t want. Some don’t want to pursue a DTM or complete a Competent Communication manual at lightning speed. Some don’t want to compete in a contest or be the club treasurer. Honor their “don’t-wants” as well as their “wants.”


Elevate the Fun Factor

Psychology confirms that when people have fun, the brain releases feel-good chemicals such as oxytocin and dopamine, leading to feelings of bonding and safety with other people. An overwhelming number of employees who work for one of Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” say their work environment is “fun,” which can lead to reduced conflict and increased employee engagement. While Toastmasters is not a for-profit workplace, there’s every reason to assume that increasing fun at meetings can have the same effects. Members who have fun will be more productive, more creative, more accepting of others, more likely to stay in Toastmasters and more committed to reaching their own personal goals. Think about the times you’ve had fun with others. Most likely, you felt a warmer connection to them, and those positive emotions helped cultivate a stronger community.

Try themed meetings, club parties, or special events outside the regular club environment. Insert levity and humor into your meetings. Institute some wacky traditions, or do something unexpected or unusual. Entertained members become retained members.


Provide a Safe and Supportive Environment

Joining and belonging differ. Joining is an event. Belonging is a journey. Brené Brown writes in her book The Gifts of Imperfection: “True belonging is not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable and learn how to be present with people—without sacrificing who we are.” Members want to feel accepted, safe and free to express their authentic selves. Toastmasters is an incredibly supportive and celebratory environment, but many members still fear new challenges. A harsh evaluation can crush their confidence. A rude comment can sting for weeks. A tight group of friends can feel like a clique to someone on the outside.

“The biggest reason I stay is the prospect of challenges in different roles outside the club and seeing whether I can make a difference or help others.”

—ROB WOOLEY, ACS, ALB

Paul Arnhold, DTM, of two clubs in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, says, “I’ve been in Toastmasters since 2008, and I’m close to completing my third DTM. But I almost quit after getting an extremely critical evaluation on my third speech. Another time I almost quit because of district leadership issues. Thankfully, other leaders who understood how to value others helped changed my mind.”

Mark Snow, DTM, of Australia, almost left Toastmasters after an unpleasant and very public experience in his club. He says, “Although the actions of a small group of members nearly made me walk away from the organization I love, the care and support I received from other members renewed my faith in Toastmasters and they convinced me to stay.”

Does your club feel safe? Are there conflicts and unrest that cause divisions or disillusionment? Are members free to express themselves without fear of criticism? Be aware of how unmet expectations can make a member feel uncomfortable.


Offer Massive Value

Community Brands, a technology company that serves nonprofit groups and associations, conducted a member loyalty study that describes three levels of member commitment ranging from ultra committed to least committed. Members of this least committed group are the most at-risk for leaving because they are looking for value in the organization but may not see it.

Illustrations by Bart Browne

Toastmasters offers great value, but some clubs may struggle to identify exactly what it is. The document “Features, Benefits and Value” (downloadable from the Toastmasters website) defines the tangible impact Toastmasters can have on individuals and organizations. This document can help one of these “at-risk” members find the value they are seeking. For example, Table Topics is a feature of Toastmasters that has the benefit of helping members to think quickly. The value of this is greater confidence in impromptu situations, such as in communications with customers. And the new Pathways education program offers a learning experience that includes more competencies than ever before.

Poll your members to find specific examples of the value they receive. Consider these comments from members:


  • “I’ve been a member for almost 22 years. Every six months I renew because I’m still getting benefits from investing my time and money.” —Bob Logan, ATMG, CL, a member of two clubs in Maryland. 
  • “I love that there are opportunities outside the club level. Toastmasters is an amazing learning experience. I’m not leaving because I still have a long way to go.” —Brenda Salazar-Elenes, vice president public relations in the Chula Vista club in California. 
  • “The biggest reason I stay is the prospect of challenges in different roles outside the club and seeing whether I can make a difference or help others.” —Rob Woolley, ACS, ALB, of the Avon Club in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Show the Big Picture

The world beyond the Toastmasters club is filled with opportunities. Attend or serve as an official at an area, division or district contest. Attend a Toastmasters Leadership Institute, the twice-yearly club officer training, to see the values, mission and vision of Toastmasters. For a truly magnificent experience, attend the annual Toastmasters International Convention in August. Nothing comes close to showcasing the global impact of this extraordinary organization. People from all over the world share stories and develop friendships, and they all started with the same thing: Project No. 1—The Ice Breaker. The brand of Toastmasters transcends culture, gender and generations. One can’t help but be inspired by the global impact of the simple concept of helping people develop communication and leadership skills.


Increase Recognition

Toastmasters is generous with applause and recognition, but that next milestone can seem far away. It’s easy to lose focus, get bored and quit. To help wandering members regain enthusiasm, some clubs have recognition for other activities beyond the education program or speech contests. Kristie Stocker, DTM, of Skillmasters Club in Detroit, Michigan, says, “We recognize members who volunteered for roles the most, attended the most meetings, did the most speeches, etc., from July 1 to December 15. Our club secretary and sergeant at arms keep track of the statistics, and we recognize the winners at our December holiday party. It’s not only fun, it’s a great jump-start for members to plan their next six months of goals.”

Akash D. K. of KIT Toastmasters club in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India, says, “We tried to reward perfect attendance, but that was hard. Now in every meeting we recognize every first-time role-taker, which encourages others to attend meetings.”

“True belonging is not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. ... It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable and learn how to be present with people—without sacrificing who we are.”

—BRENÉ BROWN

Jimmy Dent, DTM, of Colorado Springs, a member of three clubs, says, “We’ve awarded ‘Most Improved’ for speaker, evaluator or Table Topics speaker, rather than ‘Best [speaker, evaluator or Table Topics speaker].’ This allows the less experienced speaker to win over an experienced member who is not showing improvement. It also makes more experienced members step up their game.” Dent’s clubs also award points to members who compete or serve in contests, sign up for a role in advance, attend officer training if they are not an officer, and more. “These points add up toward our ‘Toastmaster of the Year’ award,” Dent says.


Treasure the Relationships

If you ask a thousand Toastmasters why they stay in their clubs, you’ll hear a consistent answer: relationships. If you’re like most members, you probably joined Toastmasters for one reason, but stayed for another—the people. Consider these comments from members:


  • “Every time I’ve pulled away from Toastmasters, I return because of my Toastmasters friends. When someone asks for my help, I’ll say yes. So many people have helped me through my journey that when I can give back, I will.” —Karen Colby Aubrecht Donovan, DTM, a member of two clubs in New York. 
  • “Warmth and friendship keep me here. Our club is incredibly connected and we enjoy activities together outside of meetings.” —Leigh Kottwitz, Missouri. 
  • “I found lifelong friends who believe in me and appreciate my hard work for the organization that changed my life.” —Daniel Morris, CC, of Great Land club, Alaska.
  • “I stay because of the camaraderie, the education, the chance to enjoy hearing someone progress from a ‘scared timid rabbit’ to a confident speaker and evaluator. I’ve met people that I would never have had a chance to anywhere else.” —Leah Cox, DTM, of Crosswinds Toastmasters club in Iowa. 
  • “I almost quit a few months ago. Why did I stay? The people in my club want me to. They want my help.” —Michael L. Trotter, ACB, ALB, of the High Definition Speakers Toastmasters club in Santa Clara, California.

In theory, slowing the leak in your club bucket is not complicated. In practice, it requires being intentional and consistent to make these deposits in the members’ satisfaction accounts. Satisfied members are longtime members, and when it’s time to renew, they’ll be happy to make the withdrawal to pay their dues.

To learn more about planning and maintaining membership growth in your club, see the Toastmasters Membership Growth manual (Item 1159) and the Moments of Truth (Item 290) available from the Toastmasters Online Store.